Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Toothmarks 

 

The first time Peggy saw Abby was in a photo. It was a glam shot by a professional photographer—her head cocked knowingly, her eyes pleading, her muscular form surrounded, absurdly, by tulle and silk.

The photo shoot had been donated, and Abby’s image was one of a set—all forlorn pit bull mixes in the dog pound—a last-ditch effort to avoid their execution. For Peggy and her wife Irene, the adoption was a desperate move to comfort their only child, a hostile, grunting teenager who had never said he needed comforting. In fact, he’d stopped speaking with them altogether. But the gorgeous dog’s insistent tongue, her affection and volatility, somehow struck Peggy as a balancing counterweight. She’d never owned a dog.

The gangly teenager permitted Abby to pin him to the corner of the sectional sofa, a place in the house he’d occupied through much of his childhood but in recent years had vacated. Jacob caressed the velvety fur on the loose skin of her neck. Abby nuzzled his armpit, his ear, his chin. She sighed and lay her head dramatically upon his shoulder. Peggy found she couldn’t swallow. To see her son’s tenderness and the joy on his face again—her trachea twisted, tugged on her lungs, and ached.

The first time Abby bit a human, Peggy and Irene were 350 miles away, taking a break from their lives. Spring break, actually. Peggy was a college instructor, and her spring break didn’t align with their son’s. Her parents lived in a distant state, but they recognized how worn down she was with anxiety about the teenager. Jacob wasn’t any more emotionally forthcoming with them, but he’d never threatened them or cursed them overtly, so they offered to stay with him and the dog so the mothers could get away and replenish their souls with bike rides and kayaking—adventures they would not be able to have with the dog.

The grandparents were in their seventies, but spry. They took Abby sightseeing as they explored the city’s landmarks, and she growled and lunged at a jogger in a park, which embarrassed them. She always seemed to have more energy than they could use up, so when they walked down to the local market to buy food, they brought her with them. The sidewalk wasn’t crowded, but a worker was standing at the base of a ladder, holding a plastic tub of spackle, discussing the job.

The grandfather had the leash. He didn’t see it coming. Abby darted in front of him, snarling, and attacked the man’s leg. The grandfather held the leash, but fell to the ground. He pulled her away, horrified, rushed back to the house, shut her into the garage, and returned to the scene. The man lifted his canvas work pants to reveal the bloodied calf. It wasn’t serious enough to seek medical attention, he said, but she had broken the skin. His accented English led them to wonder if his reluctance to seek care was influenced by his immigration status. The grandparents tossed the ball around the postage-stamp-sized, fenced backyard after that. They waited until Peggy and Irene returned from vacation to tell them about the bite, and that they would never dog-sit for Abby again. As they explained their decision, Abby, twice as large as your average lapdog, lay across Jacob’s lap, and he scratched her scruff with vigorous affection.

The second time, a man was lying on the ground in a park, beside a picnic table, perhaps sleeping off his inebriation. Abby and her dog friend had run freely in this park before, chasing and tussling, and it had been vacant—until today. Abby caught the dog Frisbee, saw the man up the hill, and beelined toward him. Irene ran after, and when she arrived, Abby was several feet away from him, barking. Standing now, he held his thigh and gestured menacingly at the dog. “He bit me!” the man spit out as Irene attached the leash and reprimanded Abby. She apologized, and he fumed. “Get him out of here.” Irene complied.

The third time was Jacob’s sixteenth birthday, and Peggy had planned a simple family ritual to mark the milestone in his passage to manhood. She had envisioned the three of them and the dog on the top of a hill in a picturesque local park, surrounded by the beauty of their city, the parents voicing both the strengths they see in their son and their hopes for his future—the words would be an offering, which would be symbolically carried away by the wind to wherever they may be needed. She wanted to acknowledge the randomness of their world and still leave open the possibility of divine intervention.

But her son had refused to leave the house with her, so she was on the hill alone, choking back tears and lobbing the dog ball, as Abby bounded through the weeds and the brush to retrieve it. The young couple with their two large, shaggy, purebred dogs appeared on the horizon, and something set her off: what could it have been, Peggy would wonder later. Their crisp yuppie sheen, the cliché of their profile—the tall man and lithe woman with their well-groomed pets—what about this family had unwittingly goaded Abby?

Abby dropped the ball and sprinted toward them, fangs bared, saliva trailing. The man choked up both leashes and lifted his dogs by their collars, presumably guided by an instinct to protect their jugulars from Abby’s jaws. The fight happened in the air, a blur of fur, teeth, growling, and yelping around his torso and hips.

With a rush of adrenaline, Peggy dove into the scrum, worked her fingers under Abby’s collar, and used all her weight to drag Abby down to the dirt. She embraced her dog and sprawled on top of her, both of them huffing and panting, blood pumping fiercely through each of their stilled bodies.

Dusk was falling, and the bruised sky illuminated the couple as the man passed the leashes to his wife. The woman called to Peggy, “Are you physically okay?” as she led their dogs several yards down the hill, away from the site of the brawl. Peggy realized that she and Abby were wet, from tears or spit or blood or all three. “I’m so sorry,” she offered, not certain she was audible.

The man’s hand shook wildly as he unbuttoned and unzipped his pants to look beneath. Peggy noted his taut, pulsing jowl—she recognized the gesture from her son, whose jaw flexed as he ground his teeth to hold back tears. “Did Abby bite you?” Peggy asked, squeezing Abby harder, confining her shoulders, shoving the dog’s haunches into the flesh of her belly. She reluctantly removed her backpack to retrieve Abby’s muzzle—now that they had both caught their breath, she couldn’t think of a reason not to strap it on her, but to save her own admission that she knew what her dog was capable of.

His eyelids fluttered when he looked at the wound. “We’re going to the hospital,” he told his wife, and set off, stiff-legged, down the hill toward their car.

“We don’t know,” the woman said. Then, as if thinking better of her response, she held up her phone and took a picture: Abby muzzled and her owner, her face streaked with dirt, prone, complicit, framed by a yellow-pink sunset.

It’s your man’s dick or Jacob, Peggy understood as she breathed in time with Abby. We need this dog in our life. Her loyalty was fierce.

 

 

Maggie Harrison’s short stories have been published in New Letters, Blithe House Quarterly, Harrington Lesbian Literary Quarterly, and Sinister Wisdom. “Everything I Know of You I Know From Your Warts” received a Pushcart nomination and an Honorable Mention for the Readers’ Award for Fiction. Her unpublished manuscript, Molehills of Mississippi: A Novel of Grace in an Age of Terror, was named as a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and for the Lee Smith Novel Prize from Blair/Carolina Wren Press. Find her creative nonfiction in Entropy and Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing: Fiction from San Francisco State University and is a professor of English, Women’s and Gender Studies, and LGBT Studies at City College of San Francisco, where she chairs the department of Women’s and Gender Studies.